It’s gratifying to see corrupt leaders removed. But it does not follow that an honest political leader is the best antidote to corruption.
Societies that bet on an honest leader to solve their problems almost always lose out. Such leaders may turn out to have integrity, or they may not. Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and Hugo Chávez all came to power promising to stamp out corruption. And we know how that turned out.
Too often, the fight against corruption serves as a mechanism of political repression. The world’s autocrats exploit popular intolerance of venal politicians to eliminate their rivals. Vladimir Putin often accuses those who grow too influential of being corrupt and throws them in jail. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, spent 10 years in a Siberian jail for tax evasion and theft. He was also actively funding anti-Putin politicians and their parties.
Since Xi Jinping assumed the Chinese presidency in 2012, more than one million officials have been “punished,” in the government’s words, for corruption. Some have been sentenced to death. In an anti-corruption purge, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently arrested hundreds of prominent Saudis, including one of the richest men in the world, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. (In an ironic twist, one of the princes reportedly bought his release for $1 billion.) The governments of Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela regularly use accusations of corruption to imprison their opponents. No doubt there are genuinely corrupt individuals among those imprisoned by dictators. But the real reasons for these arrests surely have more to do with politics than with alleged dishonesty.
The fight against corruption does not have to be corrupt, however. In Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay, for example, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is supporting “public innovation laboratories” that experiment with new methods of monitoring and controlling government conduct. In Brazil, a group of data-analysis experts has used artificial intelligence techniques to monitor public officials. They focused narrowly on limiting fraud among members of congress seeking reimbursements for their travel and food expenses; after getting crowdfunding for the startup costs, they created Rosie, an Artificial Intelligence robot that analyzes the reimbursement requests of lawmakers and calculates the probability that they are justified. To no one's surprise, Rosie found that the deputies often cheated. The team gave Rosie her own Twitter account, and her followers are instantly notified if a member of congress tries to charge the government for expenses that have nothing to do with his or her work.
Rosie is just one small example showing the positive trends and new possibilities in the fight against corruption—it reveals the power of a well-organized civil society combined with technological innovation and information transparency in the public sector.